Software freedom in the Cloud

November 14, 2017    FreeSoftware cloud saas freedom

What does software freedom actually means, in a world where more and more software no longer runs on our own computer but in the cloud? I keep thinking about this topic for quite some time and from time to time I run into some discussions about this topic. For example a few days ago at Mastodon. Therefore I think it is time to write down my thoughts on this topic.

Cloud is a huge marketing term which can actually mean a lot. In the context of this article cloud is meant as something quite similar to SaaS (software as a service). This article will use this terms interchangeable, because this are also the two terms the Free Software community uses to discuss this topic.

The original idea of software freedom

At the beginning every software was free. In the 80s, when computer become widely used and people start to make software proprietary in order to maximise their profit, Richard Stallman come up with a incredible hack. He used copyright to reestablish software freedom by defining these four essential freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the software for every purpose
  2. The freedom study how the program works and adapt it to your needs
  3. The freedom to distribute copies
  4. The freedom to distribute modified versions of the program

Every software licensed in a way that grants the user this four freedoms is called Free Software. This are the basic rules to establish software freedom in the world of traditional computing, where the software runs on our own devices.

Today almost no company can exist without using at least some Free Software. This huge success was possible due to a pragmatic move by Richard Stallman, driven by a vision on how a freedom respecting software world should look like. His idea was the starting point for a movement which come up with a complete new set of software licenses and various Free Software operating systems. It enabled people to continue to use computers in freedom.

SaaS and the cloud

Today we no longer have just one computer. Instead we have many devices such as smart phones, tablets, laptops, smartwatches, small home servers, IoT devices and maybe still a desktop computer at our office. We want to access our data from all this devices and switch during work between the devices seamlessly. That’s one of the main reasons why software as a service (SaaS) and the cloud became popular. Software which runs on a server and all the devices can connect to it. But of course this comes with a price, it means that we are relaying more and more on someones else computer instead of running the programs on our own computer. We lose control. This is not completely new, some of this solutions are quite old, others are rather new, some examples are mail servers, social networks, source code hosting platforms, file sharing services, platforms for collaborative work and many more. Many of this services are build with Free Software, but the software only runs on the server of the service provider and so the freedom never arrives at the user. The user stays helpless. We hand over the data to servers we don’t control. We have no idea what happens to our data and for many services we have no way to get our data again out of the service. Even if we can export the data we are often helpless because without the software which runs the original service, we can’t perform the same operations on our own servers.

We can’t turn back the time

We can’t stop the development of such services. History tells us that we can’t stop technological progress, whether we like it or not. Telling people not to use it will not have any notable impact. Quite the opposite, we the Free Software movement would lose the reputation we build over the last decades and with it any influence. We would no longer be able to change things for the better. Think again what Richard Stallman did about thirty years ago. He grew up in a world where software was free by default. When computers become a mass market product more and more manufactures turned software into a proprietary product. Instead of developing the powerful idea of Free Software, Richard Stallman could have decided to no longer use this modern computers and ask people to follow him. But would have many people joined him? Would it have stopped the development? I don’t think so. We would still have all the computers as we know them today, but without Free Software.

That’s why I strongly believe that, like thirty years ago, we need again a constructive and forward looking answer to the new challenges, brought to us by the cloud and SaaS. We, the Free Software community, need to be the driving force to lead this new way of computing into a way that respect the users freedom. Same as Richard Stallman did it back then by starting the Free Software movement. All this is done by people, so it’s people like us who can influence it.

Finding answers to this questions requires us to think in new directions. The software license is still the corner stone. Without the software being Free Software everything else is void. But being Free Software is by no means enough to establish freedom in the world of the cloud.

What does this mean to software freedom?

Having a close look at cloud solutions, we realise that it contains most of the time two categories of software. Software that runs on the server itself and software served by the server but executed on the users computer, so called JavaScript.

Following the principle of the well established definition of software freedom, the software distributed to the user needs to be Free Software. I would call this the necessary precondition. But by just looking at the license of the JavaScript code we are trying to solve today’s problems with the tools of the past, completely ignoring that in the world of SaaS your computer is no longer the primary device. Getting the source code of the JavaScript under a Free Software license is nice but it is not enough to establish software freedom. The JavaScript is tightly connected to the software which runs of the server so users can’t change it a lot without breaking the functionality of the service. Further, with each page reload the user gets again the original version of the JavaScript. This means that, with respect to the users freedom, access to the JavaScript code alone is insufficient. Free JavaScript has mainly two benefits: First, the user can study the code and learn how it works and second, maybe reuse parts of it in their own projects. But to establish real software freedom a service needs to fulfil more criteria.

The user needs access to the whole software stack, both the software which runs on the server and the software which runs the browser. Without the right to use, study, share and improve the whole software stack, freedom will not be possible. That’s why the GNU AGPLv3 is incredible important. Without going into too much details, the big difference is how the license defines the meaning of “distribute”. This term is critical to the Free Software definition. It defines at which point the rights to use, study, share and improve the software gets transferred to a user. Typically that happens when the user gets a copy of the software. But in the world of SaaS you no longer get a real copy of the software, you just use it over a network connection. The GNU AGPLv3 makes sure that this kind of usage already entitles you to get the source code. Only if both, the software which runs on the server and the software which runs on the browser is Free Software, users can start to consider exercising their freedom. Therefore my minimal definition of freedom respecting services would be that the whole software stack is Free Software.

But I don’t think we should stop here. We need more in order to drive innovation forward in a freedom respecting way. This is also important because various software projects already work on it. Telling them that these extra steps are only “nice to have” but not really important sends the wrong message.

If the whole software stack is Free Software we achieved the minimum requirement to allow everyone to set up their own instance. But in order to avoid building many small islands we need to enable the instances to communicated with each other. A feature called federation. We see this already in the area of freedom respecting social networks or in the area of file sync and share. About a year ago I wrote an article, arguing that this is a feature needed for the next generation code hosting platforms as well. I’m happy to see that GitLab started to look into exactly this. Only if many small instances can communicate with each other, completely transparent for the user so that it feels like one big service, exercising your freedom to run your own server becomes really interesting. Think for a moment about the World Wide Web. If you browse the Internet it feels like one gigantic universe, the web. It doesn’t matter if the page you navigate to is located at the same server or on a different ones, thousands of kilometres away from each other.

If we reach the point where the technology is build and licensed in a way that people can decide freely where to run a particular service, there is one missing piece. We need a way to migrate from one server to another. Let’s say you start using a service provided by someone but at some point you want to move to a different provider or decide to run your own server. In this case you need a way to export your data from the first server and import it to the new one. Ideally in a way which allows you to keep the connection to your friends and colleagues, in case of a service which provides collaboration or social features. Initiatives like the User Data Manifesto thought already about it and gave some valuable answers.


How do we achieve practical software freedom in the world of the cloud? In my opinion this are the corner stones:

  1. Free Software, the whole software stack, this means software which runs on the server and on the users browser, needs to be free. Only then people can exercise their freedom.

  2. Control, people need to stay in control of their data and need to be able to export/import them in order to move.

  3. Federation, being able to exercise your freedom to run your own instance of a service without creating small islands and losing the connection to your friends and colleagues.

This is my current state of thinking, with respect to this subject. I’m happy to hear more opinions about this topic.

Björn Schießle
Active in the Free Software movement for over 25 years.
Long-term volunteer at FSFE and member of the General Assembly.
Co-founder and PreSales-Lead of Nextcloud.